Gulf Residents Scared Oil Industry Will Leave: Will We Ever Break Our Abusive Relationship With Oil?

Back in the early aughts, me and Mike Brune (now the head of the Sierra Club) and Jen Krill (today the executive director of the group Earthworks) launched a national grassroots campaign to push U.S. auto companies to move away from oil. I was working then at Global Exchange, Brune and Krill were at Rainforest Action Network, and we hoped that by combining the forces of our two organizations we could jumpstart a new conversation about how our reliance on fossil fuels jeopardized not only the environment but also human rights and national security. The centerpiece of our campaign was a call to "break America's oil addiction."

At the time, the message seemed ambitious. Sure, most progressives and self-styled environmentalists understood very well the depth of our fossil fuel problem. But when it came to more mainstream audiences, comparing our oil usage to drug abuse was pretty audacious. I remember that when we held rallies at auto shows or protests at car dealerships, passersby showed discomfort with the addiction metaphor. It was like we had called out a dirty family secret hiding in plain sight. Few people argued against the comparison, but no one really wanted to admit it, either.

So it felt like something of a victory when oilman George W. Bush, in his 2006 State of the Union Address, declared: "Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil." Four years later, the notion that we are hooked on oil has become conventional wisdom. When President Obama bemoaned our "addiction to fossil fuels" during his wan Oval Office speech last week, the comment was received as nothing more than a patently obvious statement.

I'm pleased that we have as a nation finally admitted our addiction problem: After all, recognition is the first sign of recovery. But as the BP oil disaster enters its second month, it seems to me that the addiction metaphor has become inadequate. It would be more accurate to say that we're in an abusive relationship and unable to leave our abuser. The plight of the people in Louisiana proves the point. Louisianans have been punched in the face by the hand that feeds them, and yet their biggest worry is that the oil and gas industry is going to walk out the door and leave them.

"It's bad what's happening, but we still need the oil to survive," Tony Lirette, an owner of Bayou Hardware just north of Dulac, LA told me when I was in the state earlier this month. Lirette's store caters mainly to the commercial fishermen in the area, and he's been feeling a pinch from the fishing closures. But he says a shutdown of offshore drilling would only make things worse. "We have to have the oil companies -- you'd see too many people go on unemployment. A lot of my customers work in the oil fields."

"Look, we need it, just like you need the sunrise, OK," Matt Lepitich, an oysterman in Empire, LA said to me. Lepitich has taken a much bigger hit than Lirette. Some of his oyster beds have already been killed by the spill, yet he too, is afraid of what would happen if the oil and gas industry were to shut down. "With that moratorium he [Obama] added more problems to the equation. Don't get me wrong, you need to check those rigs out, check 'em out good for a month or two. But if those rigs leave, they aren't comin' back. Their shareholders at one point are going to pull the plug and say, 'That's it, get 'em outta there.'"

The vast majority of the people who live in southern Louisiana share the views of Lirette and Lepitich. During an eight-day reporting trip to the oil-affected region I conducted nearly 20 interviews, and only two people expressed support for the moratorium on offshore drilling -- and even those individuals were equivocal. If you're reading this in Santa Barbara or Boston, that opinion might sound odd. Hasn't the BP gusher imperiled, as we hear time and again, Louisianans' "entire way of life"? Sure. But here's the rub: Oil and gas is also a way of life in southern Louisiana. On the bayou, fishin' and oil are kissin' cousins.

"I don't know anyone who don't work in seafood or oil and gas or government," Brad Blanchard, a former operator of an offshore rig resupply ship company and now a co-owner of an exclusive hunting and fishing lodge told me as we sped through the marshes on his boat. When I asked him what he thought of the moratorium, Blanchard said that, with the fishing industry paralyzed, the worst thing that could happen now would be a loss of oil field jobs: "If BP leaves, it will be widespread panic."

Brad's oldest brother is Dean Blanchard, a shrimp baron in Grand Isle who is one of the biggest shrimp packers in the state. Dean has suffered what he estimates to be millions of dollars in lost revenues due to the spill, and with his knack for Huey Long-like fiery populism he has appeared everywhere from Fox News to Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now!" Brad has also taken a big hit due to the spill. Typically his lodge would be fully booked with outdoorsmen paying up to $400 a night for guided fishing expeditions; now, his bayou resort is empty. But neither of the Blanchard brothers supports a stop to offshore drilling. "Oil is a fact of life," Brad told me. "We've made it a fact of life."

Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association, has a similar take. "We have co-existed with oil companies here for the last sixty years," he told me. "It's been an uneasy relationship at times, but mostly it's worked. Some of us do seasonal work in the oil and gas, during the winter we go work in the refineries."

Guidry, 62, has run his own shrimp boat since he was 14 years old, a craft he learned from his father. Over the years he has also worked for a range of oil and gas companies, including Brown and Root, Amaco, Hess and BP. "Until we have an alternative energy source that this country is going to pursue with passion and money, we have no choice," he said. "We have to have oil. If we were to shut down oil production and gas production, New York City would freeze and also Washington, DC. Think about that one, sir."

What about those who have taken the worst beating, people like Clarice Friloux, a part-time shrimp boat deckhand and activist member of the United Houma Nation, a Native American tribe. The remaining indigenous people in southern Louisiana are among those hit hardest by the oil blowout, as they are especially dependent on fishing, which for them represents a connection to their traditional cultures. They also have suffered a long history of environmental injustice in the region. Friloux's community, the unincorporated town of Grandbois, has a large oil field waste site located right at its edge. Drilling fluids and other byproducts of the extraction industry are taken there and simply piled under the sun. Friloux fought for years to shut the disposal facility, and finally reached an out-of-court settlement with Exxon, which manages the operation. She is no stranger to the negligence of the oil and gas industry. Yet she fears the economic consequences of stopping offshore drilling.

"I know people from the bayous who, it's their livelihood, it's what they've always done is work offshore on a drilling rig," she told me. "Companies are going to leave. As much as I don't like their byproducts and how they dispose of them, I would hate to see drilling be stopped in the Gulf because of families losing their jobs just like the shrimpers are."

Friloux's son, Danny Jr., could be one of them. A burly guy with a "Native Warrior" tattoo inked on his left forearm, Danny works on offshore production platforms, where he helps manage the gas lift lines that keep the oil coming up through the wells. "We've always worked side by side with the oil and gas," his mom said. "We all know we need the oil and gas industry."

Listening to the Blanchards and the Frilouxs one comes to understand how seemingly intractable our reliance on fossil fuels is. Louisiana shows what it means to be hooked: For here we are, stained and soiled and wrecked by the oil and gas industry, and still we can't break away. The situation should be familiar to anyone who has ever struggled with tobacco, alcohol, drugs -- or an abusive relationship. Louisianans are scared of the consequences if they don't quit their decades-long affair with the oil and gas. They are even more afraid of what it will feel like if they do.

Louisiana's predicament is the plight of the entire United States, just writ large. This damned if you do, damned if you don't situation represents a serious challenge to progressives' ambitions to build a green economy. The state's utter reliance on the oil and gas industry reveals that the transition to a clean energy economy will be far more difficult than many of us know.

At this point, nifty Van Jones sound bites about the green economy (and I've coined some myself) aren't enough. Although essential, vision is insufficient. Because we can all sort of imagine what a green economy would look like; we've seen enough of the windmill porn by now. In the oily wake of the gulf disaster we have to start providing people with real, workable (and work-centered) alternatives to the fossil fuel economy. And that will take far more money, far more time, and far more economic and community dislocation than most people understand.

To leave our abusive relationship with oil and gas, tens of thousands of people will need job retraining. Not just in the extraction industries, but also in the automobile manufacturing, transportation, shipping and utility sectors. Companies will have to swallow tens of billions of dollars in stranded costs as valuable capital such as drilling platforms and 18-wheelers are abandoned in favor of wind turbine factories and diesel-electric hybrid freight trains. Entire regions (Detroit, Louisiana, Texas) will need to reinvent their economies while most cities will have to redraw their boundaries. Some places -- the exurbs of Phoenix, the outskirts of Vegas -- will simply have to be abandoned. It will be creative destruction on a scale we have never experienced.

Make no mistake: This will be a painful breakup. It will also be an expensive one; so costly, in fact, that I can't see any entity except the federal government being able to cover the price tag. And unless political "leaders" in Washington commit to the kind of World War II-style "emergency mobilization" that Bill McKibben urges, the transition will also take time. Time, unfortunately, that we don't have.

"If we keep saying 'in the meantime' and 'in the meanwhile,' we'll never get there," Dan Howells, the deputy campaigns director for Greenpeace, said to me during a trip onto Barataria Bay to check out the oil on the water. "We'll never get off this stuff."

Fair enough -- and I'm inclined to agree. But then I spent a couple of days in Houma, Louisiana, a small city that revolves around the oil and gas business. The place is filled with small companies and mom-and-pop outfits that provide services and parts to the oil giants -- the "small wheels that keep the big wheels turning," as one oil worker put it to me. People in Houma understand -- in a kind of vague, intellectual way -- that we need to move away from fossil fuels. But they will never make that break unless they have other options.

"Half of my family is in oil and gas, and half of my family is in seafood," Mike Voisin (pronounced Wa-zan), a sixth-generation oysterman whose shucking warehouse is based in Houma, said to me. During a conversation in his office, Voisin, a soft-spoken, gray-bearded man, struck me as an especially thoughtful person who has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about how best to balance the area's economy. He is worried about the reliance on fossil fuels: "It's scary that we're so dependent on something." He supports the creation of a clean energy economy: "I do think at some point alternative fuels will make their way into the market such that they will be the affordable one and will drive our economy. What will it look like if we can harvest the sun, if we can gather the winds?" And at the same time, aware of how much his community depends on the fossil fuel industry, he is skeptical of a green economy happening anytime soon: "What would it be like if we don't have oil and gas here? We will find out someday. ... I don't think we will see it our lifetimes. But maybe our kids' kids' kids will."

He then said, "People aren't afraid to quit -- it's that the alternatives don't exist. We've kind of gotten on blinders, and we've got to change that. And we know we have to change that. But in the interim there is this infrastructure built up to support that."

I got a better sense of what Mike Voisin meant by blinders, what he meant by a built infrastructure, as soon as I left his warehouse. Standing in his oyster shell-strewn loading yard, the main thing I could see was a pair of 70-feet-tall drilling platforms dry-docked at his neighbor, Narbor's Offshore Corporation. The platforms presumably were undergoing repairs and were either on their way in from, or on their way out to, the gulf waters. Oil, it seemed, was everywhere.


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